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Martha and the Vandellas is blasting from a nearby television set, neighbors are fighting in another apartment, while beneath all the hubbub, something more gruesome is playing out. Muffled sounds of a struggle combine with frantic thrashing, as Boston Strangler cranks out another chorus of “Nowhere To Run,” and audiences are sucked back to the 1960s.
In this whip-smart dramatization of those infamous killings – which started in 1962 – the people of Boston soon learned to keep their doors locked. 13 strangulations took place over three years, executed with cool-headed precision by a calculating assailant. Boston Strangler, circa 2023, attacks from a journalistic angle rather than looking to mirror anything in Richard Fleischer’s 1968 version, which starred Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis.
The hard-hitting journalists in question were Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who systematically pieced together crucial clues the Boston police department had overlooked. Aided and abetted by Detective Conley (Alessandro Nivola), Loretta spearheaded a series of articles which uncovered negligence in police procedures, while forcing those officers into action.
What writer and director Matt Ruskin does in telling this story is hark back to serial killer aficionado David Fincher. There are hat tips to Se7en, tonal acknowledgements towards Mindhunter, while composer Paul Leonard-Morgan does his best to use sparing amounts of piano in his musical journey into madness.
As the story loops back on itself before carrying on to its open-ended conclusion, Boston Strangler addresses a number of sticky issues. Gender politics, which still camped out in the prehistoric era around that time, come under heavy fire as both Loretta and Jean are subjected to workplace prejudice. Chainsmoking men hunker down over ash infested typewriters, while any female journalists are confined to lifestyle puff pieces.
Only Jack Maclaine, (Chris Cooper) editor in chief of The Record American, offers any support when Loretta first approaches him with a low-key story on seemingly unrelated murders. That this small piece starts an avalanche of interest and interlinking leads, which in turn threatens to bring down the Boston police department is half this film’s appeal.
By focusing on the murders seen through the eyes of Loretta, Ruskin cleverly makes this subject matter feel contemporary. Internal monologues told from her perspective allow audiences inside this story in the most effective way, granting them insight into an era where women were fighting for more than just respect at work.
For that reason, although violence and the acts themselves are part of this tale, almost everything is implied – a tactic which is aided in no small measure by some savvy sound design. When autopsy photos and crime scene snapshots are used, their impact is directly felt by Loretta and Jean. Misogynistic acts of degradation as depicted, are there to underline the inherent threat everyone feels, which in turn gives Boston Strangler momentum.
In an equally important subplot, which explores the pressure placed on women to remain homemakers, Loretta is perpetually undermined by her husband’s (Morgan Spector) family, who belittle her trailblazing approach. As the media coverage escalates and threats start following her home, this film maintains a tonal balancing act which ensures no plot lines are ignored.
Even the suspects who are brought in for questioning throughout Boston Strangler get some degree of progression. Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian), Daniel Marsh (Ryan Winkles), and George Nassar (Greg Vrotsos) amongst others are offered fleeting but effective characterizations – increasing dramatic substance overall, which makes the end product infinitely more engaging while ensuring it remains an effective thriller up until the closing credits.
Released into the streaming market in an age of gender empowerment, where understanding, acceptance, and fluidity are watch words ignored only by the ignorant – Boston Strangler has more to say than some might think by promoting a forthright, focused, and professionally progressive approach in those central performances. Roles which are only made to look easy by Knightley and Coon, purely because they embody them so effortlessly.
However, there is no denying that beyond some fine work from a solid ensemble cast including Bill Camp (Commissioner McNamara), and Rory Cochrane (Detective Deline), Boston Strangler succeeds in adding another intriguing entry to this overcrowded genre. Not only that but going on this evidence, Ruskin may well have made a film which combines elements of Se7en and All the President’s Men – without diminishing the impact of either.
Packed with solid performances from Oscar winners and nominees alike, ‘Boston Strangler’ delivers on all fronts as Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, and Chris Cooper bring it home for Hulu.
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